Costs and Benefits of Outdoor Static Aircraft Displays

This is a transcript of a presentation at the Preserving U.S. Military Heritage: World War II to the Cold War, June 4-6, 2019, held in Fredericksburg, TX. Watch a non-audio described version of the presentation on YouTube.

Outdoor Display Aircraft: Considering Costs and Benefits

Presenter: Daniel L. Phoenix


Humans have decorated with weapons for millennia and retired and captured cannons have been a feature of American landscapes since at least the Civil War. But military aircraft could not practically be put on outdoor static display until after the introduction of all-metal aircraft in the mid-1930s.

Since the massive demobilization after World War II, aircraft static displays have proliferated in municipal spaces, at veterans’ facilities, and on military installations. Because aircraft are designed for constant and careful maintenance, they are poorly suited for permanent outdoor display. The installation and maintenance costs of outdoor static displays are high but are not difficult to understand and project. Less well understood are the various benefits accruing from outdoor display of aircraft. But for policymakers to allocate enough resources to maintain these artifacts, heritage professionals need to be able to clearly explain their benefits.

How can heritage professionals, and displaying organizations, understand and calculate the benefits of static display aircraft? Outdoor display is particularly harmful to preservation values. But static display aircraft also fulfill interpretive and landscape architectural roles, and serve both casual and deliberate audiences. They can also be understood as a kind of public art, or at least fulfilling roles similar to public art, and their effects can be measured in ways that are similar to public art installations.

Their positive effects can be counteracted by poor placement, poor maintenance, and in some cases, museum fatigue brought on by over-sized collections.

Bald white man in glasses wearing a bright colored plaid shirt and blue necktie standing at a podium.
Daniel L. Phoenix, Deputy Director of History and Heritage, Air Force Global Strike Command, Barksdale AFB


Daniel Phoenix: Good morning ladies and gentlemen. Ray [Barnett], thanks very much for that. I can safely say that just about everything he said is very much the same for us. I can sense deep down the frustrations underlying many of your problems. A quick introduction to my program, the army structure with CMH [US Army Center of Military History] is I think probably a little bit more centralized with historians and museum functions. In the Air Force all of those functions are as widely dispersed as possible so that instead of being centralized into one organization the historians of the history of museum program and the curators of our various field museums and heritage centers are pushed all the way down to the base level and responsive to the local base commander, whether that's a wing colonel or the brigadier general.

That kind of leads to the purpose of what I wrote this for in the first place. It was not written with this audience in mind. It is genuinely written for arguing with colonels and brigadier generals. On me... I've been enjoying these presentations greatly like Ellen Blank yesterday from Golden Gate. I am no kind of preservationist or conservator. I'm an interpreter, I'm a visitor services guy and I'm a historian. When I say very broad things about static display aircraft, I don't speak from a conservative’s perspective and as I sent this presentation up for review that drew a very sharp rebuke from one of the reviewing agencies asking whether I was an expert on static displays and whether I was qualified to say things like putting them outdoors on display is not as good for them as having them indoors on display.

I didn't think that that was a controversial statement to make at all, but they felt very strongly about it. Which leads me to my disclaimer that the views presented in this paper are the author's. Pausing here. There is actually a federal law that gives you the language of the disclaimer you're supposed to use at these. I'd like to blanket apply it to all other federal employees who've spoken over the last two days too just to get everybody else out of trouble. And do not represent the views of the Department of Defense or its components to include Air Force Global Strike Command, which they were all fine with it, The Air Force History Museums Program or the National Museum of the United States Air Force.

Three white missiles stand behind near a sign reading US Air Force F.E. Warren Air Force Base. Home of the Missileer.
The three ICBMs displayed at F. E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming


I also have other opinions which also do not reflect the views of any of these institutions. I've been overseeing museums within Global Strike Command for a about four years now. One of the things that I quickly learned is how preservation functions operate in an organization that is not a preservation agency. I had started my federal career with the National Park Service, a preservation agency. With the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, which is very much a preservation agency. When I started doing museum work for the Air Force, I quickly came to understand that you could never approach an organization with a wildly divergent mission like you would the leadership of a preservation agency. That appeals to the long-term preservation of artifacts, appeals to telling a whole story relevant to the audience. These very often fell on very deaf ears when the room is completely full of pilots.

Humans have decorated with weapons for millennia and retired and captured cannons has been a feature of American landscapes since at least the civil war, but military aircraft could not be practically put on outdoor static display until the introduction of all metal aircraft in the mid-1930s. Since the massive demobilization after World War II, aircraft static displays have proliferated and municipal spaces, at veterans facilities and especially from my context on military installations. The installation and maintenance costs of outdoor static displays are very high, but they're not difficult to understand them project. Less well understood are the various benefits that come from outdoor display of aircraft. But for policymakers to allocate enough resources to maintain these aircraft, heritage professionals need to be able to clearly articulate their benefits.

How can heritage professionals in displaying organizations understand and calculate the benefits of static display aircraft? You could extend this argument to any other kind of macro artifact, whether it's a tank or a ship in mobile bay. Static display aircraft fulfill interpretive and landscape architectural roles and serve both casual and deliberate audiences. They can also be understood like a kind of public art or at least fulfilling roles similar to public art. Their effects can be measured in ways that are similar to public art installations. The positive effects can be counteracted though by poor placement and in some cases museum fatigue.

To connect with the story of the civil war, you need only to walk the fields and hills of Gettysburg or Vicksburg. In the Arden forest or at Omaha beach, it's easy to detect the lingering sense of the Second World War. But for war at sea and in the air, there are no battlefields to walk. I think this is why people have taken pains to preserve museum ships and static display aircraft despite the significant costs of that largest category of macro artifacts. There aren't many categories of macro artifacts and most of them are vehicles, ships, aircraft, spacecraft, ground vehicles. Anyone involved in interpreting these items knows that behind every vehicle are hundreds or thousands of human stories. Often these stories have no other material touch point besides a preserved ship or plane. These stories, powerful but often unexamined and undefined exert an irresistible pull on some audiences.

In the United States it has long been customary for air force bases to hold a few retired planes back from the scrap heap and put them on display in convenient outdoor spots. Sometimes scattered on street corners and grassy spaces. Other times organized into outdoor air parks. When money and manpower were abundant back in the Cold War, there was nothing to discourage this kind of institutional collecting. As the decades have passed, money has grown tight, manpower tighter still. In the 21st century bases sometimes struggle to find the resources to care for these aging plains. But the desire to preserve the artifacts and to represent their stories still influences airman at all levels, at a very instinctive level.

The same practice appears and I think for the same reasons in municipal settings and at veterans facilities. In many towns, large and even very small towns, you can often find a fighter plane, a tank or an artillery piece placed on display out in front of the American Legion or the VFW hall in a city park. When it features a plane, the display will generally include one small airplane, occasionally two often in 1950s era, a model, a fighter jet or trainer. The opportunities and the resource challenges for the American Legion post mirror those of an air force base only on a smaller scale.

A few years ago I dropped in on the air force base where I started my career. The base, this is not it incidentally, the base has a very attractive and very well proportioned air park, which I oversaw in my time and I helped it to grow a little bit. We added a C-47, one of the great plane. I ate lunch with my colleagues who were there at the time, and one of them told me the story about the organizational resistance that he had gone through trying to get the air park's latest edition, which was a fairly rare type of helicopter. As I sat there, I was sympathizing with the organizational battles and thinking about what he went through to convince different stakeholders to get onboard. But secretly, I'll tell you but I didn't tell him, I disagreed with this project.

In my opinion, his helicopter wasn't a good addition to that air park. Institutionally, the way the air force would see it, well, it was minimally relevant to the theme, good enough. The planes in the air park were well maintained so we had no beef with them on condition grounds. By air force standards the informational plaques were adequate. So why would I oppose another static display? That's what led me to start to think about how to develop an overall cost-benefit model for air parks. The cost side of the equation is simple enough. Installation costs are fixed and finite. There's transportation of worldwide aircraft recovery, I cannot recommend them highly enough. Site preparation, research, restoration and installation. Recurring costs like landscaping, corrosion control, very expensive, animal control, structural maintenance, security, interpretive materials, and even real estate opportunity costs can be measured and estimated on an annualized basis.

A few air parks are staffed or share staffing with an interpretive center bare dedicated manpower costs. The benefit side of an air park is much harder to calculate. While the costs are primarily financial, the benefits manifest in psychological, emotional, and community responses. This analysis identifies areas that need measurement and identifies assumptions and provides general guidelines for estimating effectiveness based on those assumptions. Audience research could quantify many of these social variables identified in this presentation.

However, this analysis does not address the intrinsic benefits of preservation. And this is where I would like to argue, if I were allowed to, that putting a plane on permanent outdoor static display ultimately is going to be very deleterious to the long-term preservation of that. Now I know that in the army they would call that kind of plane a flowerpot, that its long-term preservation is not a great concern with it so much as it's a decorative value. The Air Force and its partner institutions like the Smithsonian Civilian Museums are responsible to preserve a critical mass of historic aircraft as specimens. Cost-benefit analysis and macro artifact preservation is a separate and difficult topic.

Air park cost-benefit analysis begins with a typology of air park audience contacts. The types and balance of contacts will depend on the setting. But air park contacts can be categorized as casual and deliberate. This is a great example of casual contact or an air park with primarily casual context because this is Tinker Air Force Base that is Interstate 40 going straight through the city of Oklahoma City, and these planes are plainly visible from the interstate and right there at a very busy interchange. In terms of just immediate visual context, this air park is going to see thousands, tens of thousands of very casual contacts every day. These happen when passers-by view the static displays passively. The bulk of air park of casual contacts come from commuter and local traffic. Audience research would likely show diminishing effectiveness of recurring casual context if you measure those in attentiveness or awareness over time, as frequent passers-by become accustomed to the displays and start to ignore them.

Aerial view looking down on 11 different modern aircraft next to a busy interstate highway.
Airpark at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma City

Any individual's most effective casual contacts will tend to be their first contacts with the strongest impact on first time in infrequent visitors. The more the audience passes by the static displays, the less likely they are to notice them or gain any effect from them. Deliberate contacts are purposeful visits to air park. Deliberate visitors can take an aesthetic, historical, technical or memorial approach to the displays. They may make use of non-personal interpretive resources, interpretive panels, printed guidebooks or interpreters. Guided contacts are fairly rare in base air parks, but a few sites have personnel sometimes available for that purpose, which is often by appointment. But the effectiveness of deliberate contacts measured in intellectual and emotional outcomes interpretive effects, is highly dependent on the quality of the air park and its interpretive materials.

The availability of interpretive materials then is dependent on interest from site administrators and availability of competent interpreters. These two main audience groups differ in the nature of the contacts... in the nature of the effects that they receive from the air park and thus how those effects can be measured. Deliberate contacts follow the standard model for interpretive sites. Casual contacts are more heavily influenced by the air parks aesthetic appeal as an element of a specific landscape. The landscape architecture function of the airpark. A cost-benefit analysis would need to inquire into the rate of return over time.

Standalone air parks of any size are most often set up to be visible to passing vehicle traffic. Most air parks visitation will consist primarily of frequent commuters and local traffic. It would be reasonable to predict that the effect of a static display or display group on an individual casual passer-by decreases over time. But an air park or individual statics display aircraft should not be understood solely as an individual exhibit artifact. Static displays contribute to an architectural and landscape architectural environment. On an air force base there one of the elements and probably the key element that can communicate a location's sense of being a military base. Other common contributing architectural elements includes symbolic and practical defensive fortifications, barracks, parade grounds, garrison flagpoles, distinctive signage, formal administrative architecture.

A military organization has an interest in emphasizing these elements in the more formal administrative areas of a base. Has little need of them in the bases' working areas where military equipment and military activity is ubiquitous. An old fighter plane or tank parked in front of American Legion home has the same effect on a smaller scale to identify a space as being distinctively military. So in a case like that, it's immediate direct interpretive value may be limited and that's okay. This is probably at its most relevant on an air force base because most air force bases were really built up during the early Cold War period at a time when architectural ornament was drawn to its bare minimum, buildings are rectangular, cinderblock, very utilitarian and without any of the kind of high concept, high architecture styling that you might have found before World War II.

Those airplanes carry a very significant importance for making the space feel military. Taken as a whole, the landscape architectural effect of an air park in conjunction with other architectural elements establishes a minimum baseline of effectiveness, counteracting community's tendency to stop noticing air parks. Even when it's active attention has fallen to its lowest rate, the audience continues to experience some psychological impact from the environment. The potency of this effect can be increased by enhancing the landscape architectural environment, by increasing the drama of the static displays. And through interpretive programming, deliberate contact, using those in another context that helps the audience, generally the base population, connect intellectually and emotionally to the environment.

Moving on to talk about the air park as an exhibit. From a museum perspective an air park is nothing more or less than an outdoor exhibit. Akin to a botanical garden, a zoo, a sculpture garden, any exhibits should be planned, designed, and presented around a cohesive theme and concept. For specific and measurable purpose, selecting, arranging and interpreting artifacts is at the heart of the curator's role. Outdoor exhibits, including air parks, have structural limitations that complicate their management. Only large, robust, durable exhibits are placed on outdoor display. It's expensive, complicated and risky to relocate garden plants, outdoor sculptures and zoological biome exhibits. And available real estate may limit the available physical arrangements. The same is true to static display aircraft. By the time an aircraft has been obtained, delivered, restored, and placed on display often at tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars of expense, it is not moved again lightly and it can be expected to remain in place for decades.

Chronological or thematic organization is essential to any museum exhibit, including outdoor exhibits. Organized exhibits reduce the amount of mental effort that audiences need to invest. This improves audience absorption of key messages and encourages closer attention. Because they can't be easily reorganized it'd be ideal to start an air park with a comprehensive plan for initial and future air park acquisitions so that the whole collection can be easily interpreted. In practice, air parks have already been established air force wide and tend to grow organically. Some have been subject to comprehensive planning, but personnel turnover renders many plans quickly obsolete.

Growth and reduction occur only on the margins and individual additions and subtractions from various air parks. Various organizational schemes generally aesthetic, functional or random have been followed in different locations over the decades. But the fundamental principle of outdoor exhibit curation that reorganization is unlikely, is the controlling factor in the development of air force air parks over time. No curator can expect to reorganize an air park for the sake of interpretive effect. If an air park lacks aesthetic drama, the landscape architectural effect will also be reduced.

For interpretive purposes, the ideal air park is selected thematically, organized thematically and or chronologically. The two dominant thematic categories for air force base air parks are the history of the base and specialized functional history. Because onsite retirement is the least expensive excession method, it's been common for air force bases to collect examples of retiring planes from their own basis. Gradual accumulation has left many bases with representative examples of at least a portion of their historical aircraft and missiles, missile guys, and a fair ability to represent much of a basis history through its air park collection.

Three black children read a sign about the Republic F-84F Thunderstreak. One silver plane is behind the sign two others are in the background.
Airpark signage at the Barksdale Global Power Museum. New interpretive signs for this museum are currently in development as of 2019.

The base history theme is also the least vulnerable to change because unlike its mission or assigned units, the history of a base can't be changed. When a base has been specialized in a particular mission like fighters or tactical air lift or something for a long time, it makes sense to feature prominent aircraft from that mission's history in an airport, even if some of the collection never operated at the host base. A functional collections greater relevance to the primary audience provides excellent interpretive potential, but there's significant long-term risk in a thematic collection. If the base transitions to a new mission at some later date, the air park might be left with a collection that holds little relevance to its primary audience.

Unit connections is a very common one, provide a much weaker basis for thematic collection. The historical impacts of unit lineage are too complicated to describe in any detail, but it's sufficient to say that there's never any enduring guarantee that a particular air force unit at any organizational echelon will stay at that same base permanently. And yet it's not at all uncommon for a unit to seek to collect examples of its past aircraft that were operated at other locations. That was a good one from my original base where every couple of years somebody would come around and say, "We need to get a KC-135." "Sir, they never flew KC-135 at this base and it's not relevant to our collection." "Yeah. But our unit flew them 20 years ago." "Sir, it's a 707 with a pipe sticking out the back. It's not a cool airplane. We don't want one."

Static display is collected solely on the basis of long ago connections of unit history usually only hold relevance for airman affiliated with that unit. And even then it's not a strong connection to the way the air force structure works. That reduces the primary audience for the display proportionally. The worst case scenario is an air park collected without a coherent theme. The generalist air park presents a would be interpreter with an almost insurmountable challenge. Whether guided, facilitated by interpretive panels or a guidebook, an interpretive program needs some kind of narrative arc. An air park without a coherent theme can't be organized and its audience relevance will suffer. I've run into that one before where I was asked, “Well, what's the theme of this? Well, the theme is Air Force history.”

Can we narrow that down? I'm an interpreter, so this isn't as daunting as it sounds because we're often called to interpret preserved sites like a battlefield or volcano, and we simply have to make due with whatever the existing resources are. That's what we're there to interpret. This is part of the interpretive skillset and the interpreter who inherits responsibility for an existing air park has little choice but to interpret the collection as it exists. But individual accessions and de-accessions are possible especially over the long term. An air park plan should consider the interpretive potential of future additions and subtractions. Paradoxically subtracting a plane from an air park may serve to increase its effectiveness by improving its thematic coherence. Well that's the point I really want to get across to the colonels I wrote this for.

Just a quick mention on interpretive materials, which is not my script, so I'll sound more natural saying it. Let me cut back here a little bit. This is an example of the traditional legacy air park sign that we would get in the air force. These are, and I'm sure most of you are familiar with this pattern, often built and created by very enthusiastic amateurs. And so you end up with a small sign with a lot of words. We are moving more towards this, which is example of one of the signs that we did up at South Dakota Air and Space Museum, Ellsworth South Dakota, with proper interpretive planning, proper interpretive writing, graphic design, and putting together a material that's more suited to a generalist audience rather than a specialist audience.

All right, so returning to this original photo. This is the bomber loop at the Dyess Linear Air Park. I want to talk a little bit about diminishing returns or museum fatigue with my last minute. Actual measurement would require an audience evaluation campaign, but we can assume that one well-chosen well-displayed aircraft will on average produce a positive effect for the audience greater than the effect of zero static display airplanes. We can also assume that two well-chosen, well-displayed aircraft will increase the effectiveness over one. But will the addition of a 35th plane to an existing collection of 34 provides the same increase as two planes over one. It's very possible that the effectiveness curve bends down at some point as audiences, both casual and deliberate, confront museum fatigue and information overload.

The maximum practical number will probably depend on the layout of the air park, the quality of the interpretive media at the thematic cohesion of the collection. This is one small part of the Dyess Linear Air Park. Here's the whole thing. Stretches, I think, about a mile or a mile and a half. It is mostly used as a jogging trail. That's a lot of corrosion control for the benefit of joggers. Yes, I'm out of time. For casual visitors, the individual airplanes aren't as important as the overall effect. The effective size of an air park is limited by proportion and inherently subjective measure. There's no justification for actually attempting to fill a space with airplanes. About 70 B-52s can be comfortably parked on the main parade ground if you were in air force base. But nobody would think it was a good idea to park 70 B-52s on it.

For any given space there'll be a practical limit to its carrying capacity and that limit will be subjective. The best advice on subject will come from an architect, landscape architect or community planner. This presentation has been long on questions and conjectures, short on conclusions. Let me skim ahead for time. It is reasonable to assume that static display airplanes have a net positive effect on the communities. Site managers and planners can benefit from understanding the ways and means by which audiences experience these unique outdoor exhibits and landscape architectural installations. It's possible to improve their effectiveness even before their effect has been measured.


Mary Striegel: Thank you, Dan. We have time for two questions.

Speaker 1: You started by saying that you originally prepared this for leadership. What has been the response?

Dan Phoenix: I haven't presented it to any leadership yet. I finished it quickly for this symposium. Part of the goal here is to be able to express to base leadership that there are... they approach preservation very instinctively. I can think of a recent commander that I worked with who loved heritage and he loved airplanes and he just wanted to stick them everywhere. I say, "Sir, your instinct isn't wrong, but there are good ways and bad ways to do this." And getting him to understand that step back long enough to take advice from his advisors. That was a challenge with him. It was a huge challenge with him particularly because he had four stars on his shoulder and you can't tell them what to do.

It's kind of what I'm working towards is that ability to get them thinking that there are... in fact an air force officer understands the idea of effects based operations. What's the effect that we're trying to achieve and then let's work backwards to how are we going to achieve it. Once you can put it in their terms, that way you start to get a little bit more attention. I don't know if it'll ever work in the end though.

Speaker 2: I view what you showed up here, you talked a lot about landscape architecture. I really viewed that as a cultural landscape issue. Have you all thought about doing cultural landscape reports to help you plan treatments, to help you plan planning and how many aircraft can come in and go? Because that was really a very vernacular landscape that you're showing us, not so designed, it doesn't look like, but the other types of landscapes[crosstalk 00:28:48].

Dan Phoenix: In some cases they can be somewhat designed. It really depends on where you are and who is involved. I would say that it's essentially the same thing in a different language. I'm a historian, so if I start talking even about landscape architecture, I'm pretty stupid about it. If we talk cultural landscapes, I'm very ignorant of that. But in my experience when I've dealt with this usually a base will have a community planner. If anybody is going to say, "This is where this should go," it's going to be that person. Sometimes an architect, sometimes a colonel. What's his qualification? He's a colonel. I would love to see more of that kind of study done. Absolutely.

Speaker Bio

Daniel Phoenix is a military historian and museum program administrator. He is currently Deputy Director of History and Heritage for Air Force Global Strike Command, at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana. He has previously worked for the Air Force in Germany and Arkansas, as a Park Service seasonal interpreter in Oregon and Washington, and at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. He has an M.A. in Military History from Norwich University, and a B.A. in History from Arizona State University.

Last updated: June 2, 2021